Under the skin

The Royal College of Physicians’ new WELL Platinum teaching base in Liverpool has been designed with an appropriately scientific approach, resulting in one of the world’s healthiest buildings, including a bespoke patterned envelope. James Parker reports

A medical education facility designed with an unusual amount of research behind it has emerged in Paddington Village, a new part of Liverpool designated as the ‘Knowledge Quarter.’ It was conceived when the city council and university came together to develop a vast heath campus, adjacent to the Royal Liverpool Hospital and Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, the
latter formerly being located on a site in the Wirral.

The venerable Royal College of Physicians (RCP), established in 1518, approached Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds in 2016 as it was looking to expand its physician training centre out of London, after being based in the capital for 500 years. “They were perceived as being very London-centric,” says Robert Hopkins, architect and director at AHR, but that the college “had changed a lot in that time,” and wanted to be closer to its members across the country.

Despite an original assumption that the college might end up in Manchester, he says the offer from Liverpool “was so compelling,” that they “sensed there was a real partnership there, and that they were going to part of the city’s vision for health.” 

Liverpool City Council, who developed the project, offered a deal to the college, namely that if they would take half of the 151,000 ft2 building on a long lease, they would get to influence the design, and the choice of architect, via staging a competition.


Hopkins explains that the remit of the new £35m building was a essentially commercial one, and as a result the architects had to work to the usual constraints in terms of its viability such as establishing the net to gross floor area, working to BCO guidance. The architects had a “very loose” brief from the college, beyond wanting to expand out of London, and they spent around six months with the client exploring what they were already doing, and what they wanted to do. 

“It became very clear they also wanted to do conferences and events, exhibitions, public outreach,” says Hopkins. They also wanted the space to house the practical MRCP examination, alongside teaching and research, which the college hadn’t been able to do on its Regents Park site.

One of the clear drivers was that the college “didn’t want to replicate what they had in London.” For example, they wanted a Harvard lecture theatre, which is based on a more ‘open’ format; illustrating how the college also wished to move away from its self-confessedly “insular” nature in its London incarnation. “They were really keen to be seen as an outward-facing organisation.”

As part of this new approach, the client arrived at an aspiration to “set new standards in workplace and biophilic design,” and a driving ethos that people ‘will be healthier when you leave the building than when you walk in.’ This momentum led to a target to achieve WELL Platinum, making it one of the few buildings in the UK with this level of workplace sustainability certification. 

The client wanted a very considered design as a recruitment tool for students and staff: “The brief was to attract and retain a highly-skilled workforce, supported by a unique layout and design which uses biophilic interventions throughout, with connections to nature being proven to reduce stress and increase productivity.” Hopkins says that they “didn’t just want a certificate on the wall, they really meant it”; this included being very invested in the design process. 

Design development

AHR’s 2017 competition entry was about “looking at the values of the college; health outcomes,” says Hopkins, and asking ourselves how we could turn that into architecture.” The briefing process was unusual for AHR, with the client scrutinising the design at each stage, and asking the architects what research they were using to back up the decisions. This meant showing evidence-based research on “literally everything,” says Hopkins, “down to door handle materials; it was a four-year research project.”

One evidence-based scientific design accreditation approach, The WELL Standard, had emerged a couple of years earlier, in the US, “connecting all systems
of the human body to their environment,” says Hopkins, and the project team embraced it fully. He adds: “We thought it was a really great way to manifest the values of the college,” and would also ultimately be the measure of how the building actually affected its users.

This was AHR’s first WELL project, but Hopkins was happy to discover it was a highly useful system for steering the design with the full involvement of this particular client. “Each of the points within WELL has three or four research papers associated with it. I was focused on it from the design perspective, but the client team read the papers, and understood the reasoning behind it.” Their interest was bolstered by the fact that many of the papers, although written in US academic institutions, were by fellows of the college, who also helped compile the standard itself. 

The architects collaborated closely with the contractors to deliver some of the more uncompromising aspects of WELL in aspects like VOCs in products, as a result The Spine “doesn’t have that new building smell.” Air quality is a key aspect of WELL, and managing the CO2 content of indoor air in particular; BCO and CIBSE recommend air quality levels of around 1200 ppm (parts per million).

With cognitive function being impacted to a greater degree between 900-1200 ppm, the architects aimed for 800, but in use the building has stayed under 600. “The college loved things like that – actually making people more effective,” says Hopkins.

He admits there was a perception in the project team that designing to WELL would mean a premium added to the final cost, but the architects insisted that it was already included during the specification. In the end it has only added 3% to the build, says Hopkins, including a vast array of planting across the interiors (whose specification was driven by 1989 NASA research which showed physiological benefits of plants). The shell and core came out at £1850 per square metre.

Engineering a WELL facade  

As a design metaphor embodying the purpose of the building, a “narrative of the human body” has been expressed in several elements: planting – ‘lungs,’ helical stairs – ‘vertebrae,’ and patterned concrete columns representing the body’s trabecular system. The most explicit example is the fully-glazed external facades, which are printed in a seemingly random, ‘Voronoi’ ceramic frit pattern. On closer inspection it is composed of clusters of polygons (23 million of them in fact, and each unique), inspired by the structure of human skin.

The mesh-like frit pattern creates a “forest canopy” effect internally, to benefit users and minimise cooling. This ‘dermis’ layer is far from merely decorative. It has a crucial function in moderating internal temperatures, like human skin, there being no other shading present. The level of ceramic applied doesn’t seem to vary greatly across the facades to the naked eye, but it’s been painstakingly designed according to the sunlight levels on each. There’s 15% coverage on the north facade, 25% on the east and west, and 35% on the south.

The competition-winning facade design was very different however, being based on “dancing DNA,” says Hopkins. The architects were encouraged “very politely” by Jane Dacre, then president of the college, to change the approach to something more relevant to physicians, although still referencing the human body. The AHR architect who created the complex Voronoi pattern (using Grasshopper software) had originally studied mathematics, so “this was his moment,” says Hopkins, following in the footsteps of the celebrated Russian mathematician Vorony.

The designers then presented 1500 different patterns to glazing manufacturer Saint-Gobain, after each had been individually double-checked by the architects. The manufacturer was happy to create a different liquid ceramic pattern for each panel, due to its advanced processes. The result is highly successful for users internally – as well as keeping spaces cool, “there are incredible shadows coming through the pattern,” says Hopkins, which ties into the Japanese concept of ‘forest bathing’ which can reduce stress, benefit heart rate, and improve creativity.  

The architects printed 1:1 paper examples of the panels on “huge rolls of paper” which Hopkins brought to the client in London; these were unrolled in the central void space to see how the patterns looked in the flesh. He then had to present to a panel, who decided to take the plunge.


As well as flexible, high-tech conference and events spaces, and several floors of teaching facilities, the building provides fine dining accommodation, and a cafe. The teaching function includes practical examination rooms in the form of ‘simulations’ of hospital wards for training medical staff. Says Hopkins, “We’d started off speculating what the range of functions might be, and that got refined over the course of six months.” 

Some of the departments in the college have moved in their entirety to the new Liverpool site (RCP taking the top four floors), such as the practical and written MRCP exams, whereas others are split between the two sites. The architects reviewed research on learning metrics, and found that exams done in a naturally lit space were associated with a 7%-9% increase in performance, and with a view that increases to 12%-13%. As a result the new exam facilities were naturally lit; not possible in RCP’s London predecessor. The conference facilities are also a vast improvement, connected by audio visual networks and offering the facility to network across the London and Liverpool buildings.

The building is 15 metres from the core to the glazing, and the 3 metre floor to floor heights are slightly higher than a “traditional” commercial building, although natural ventilation wasn’t possible. As Hopkins says, offering good space with commensurate natural light not only helps the users feel better, it also contributes to the achievement of WELL credits.

All of the permanent workspaces are within 7.5 metres of the perimeter, providing a view, meaning there was “no requirement to put in systems that simulated your Circadian rhythms,” says the architect. There are three staircases, their attractive helical oak forms encouraging users to walk up from the ground floor to the connecting double-height spaces above. The lifts cores have been pushed to the north facade.  


This was a demanding project for AHR, not least due to the unusually engaged, inquiring nature of the client. The result of all the hard work is a building which succeeds on all fronts for the Royal College. Also, the long-running wellness research project which constituted the briefing phase was worth the time invested for the practice, says Robert Hopkins, as it allowed AHR to “build up such a body of evidence.” He adds: “We’ll never again do so many things focused on wellness and health in a workplace, but there will always be some of those elements in every project we do.”

With many of the students at the college likely to work in healthcare facilities worldwide, the architects hope they will share their experience of how the building itself helps deliver health, and apply the learnings in their own contexts. AHR is currently designing the centrepiece of the Paddington Quarter – a mixed use scheme called Hemisphere – raising the bar again from WELL Platinum to net zero carbon.